Motorhome travel: Exploring ancient Scotland in a campervan
My memories of trips to Scotland are precious things that I cherish. Sometimes I fool myself that I have seen it all, yet this autumn trip showed Scotland still has plenty of hidden treasurers to discover. We were exploring the ancient area of Lorn (aka Lorne), part of Argyll and Bute and packed with majestic mountains, long sea lochs, craggy coast, easy-to-access islands, plenty of castles and wild Rannoch Moor: a sort of Highlands in miniature.
We had crossed the ‘Highland Line’ at Tyndrum the day before. Remembering that we needed LPG, we were disconcerted to find that the petrol station didn’t stock it. We hoped that there was enough in our Gaslow cylinder and found a perfect overnight stop in the splendour of Glen Lochy, arriving in time to enjoy a walk along the river in the evening sun.
Glen Orchy had put us in the mood to dawdle and so, despite many previous trips along the A85, this was the first time we stopped at St Conan’s Kirk on Loch Awe. What a treat we had been missing! This complex and unusual church, dedicated to the patron saint of Lorn, enjoys a sweeping view over Loch Awe. Entering the church through the cloisters, I walked straight through to take in the panoramic view across the loch.
We failed to find any LPG in Oban, so carried on to Seil with our fingers crossed. Seil Island is joined to the mainland by the handsome eighteenth century Clachan Bridge over a narrow channel, popularly known as the Bridge over the Atlantic. On the more rugged Atlantic edge of Seil is the village of Ellenabeich, with Easdale Island across the channel. Seil, Easdale and nearby Luing were known as the slate islands that roofed the world and this industry has shaped the landscape.
We had time to visit the Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Centre in the row of charming white cottages. With few visitors at this time of year, the volunteer was happy to leave her knitting and chat about the practicalities of life on Seil. I found the displays about the slate industry interesting and I also spotted photographs of some stunning stained glass windows that we got instructions for finding the next day. With a leaflet from the museum, we followed a walk around the village to learn more about how the slate industry forged the geography. Examining what appears to be a bay, we could make out the line of the sea wall for the former quarry, which was breached in an autumn storm in 1881, flooding the quarry and making 240 workers redundant.
On the pier we watched the small ferry shuttling back and forth to Easdale before taking the steep path up the hillside to appreciate the bird’s-eye view over the village and the Firth of Lorn. The pattern of the cottage terraces is clear from here and we gazed across the sea to the bigger islands of Jura and Mull. We finished our walk in the comfortable Oyster Bar with a pint of local ale before retiring to our night stop on the car park of the Highland Arts Exhibition.
Kilbrandon Church was worth the detour, another hidden gem that gives nothing away from outside. Step inside and the five strikingly colourful stained glass windows take your breath away. Given to the church in 1938, the windows are the work of Douglas Strachan, an influential twentieth century stained glass artist who left the world around 340 windows, from St Magnus’ Cathedral on the Orkney Islands to The Peace Palace in The Netherlands.
Back on the mainland, we stopped for morning coffee overlooking Loch Feochan. We meandered up the coast road, stopping at Dunstaffnage Castle, one of Scotland’s oldest castles that guards the Firth of Lorn and is still an impressive defensive building. The highlight is walking the battlements and enjoying the views over the rocky peninsular, the harbour and beyond Connel Bridge to the mountains.
Further north, we left the main road to find the sheltered village of Port Appin and what was once a sea arch leaning against the cliffs, now high and dry as sea levels have changed since the last ice age. With an almost empty cylinder, we finally found LPG in Onich before pulling into Bunree Caravan and Motorhome Club site; its stunning location is impossible to resist. Here, we sat on a bench drinking tea and enjoying the view across the stillness of Loch Linnhe.
The next morning, with rain forecast, we opted for a sheltered walk and the Forestry Commission’s Glencoe Lochan proved to be another hidden treasure. This lovely woodland and lochan were created over 100 years ago by Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona) for his wife who was homesick for her native North American forests
The road along the banks of Loch Leven took us to Kinlochleven, tucked away at the head of the loch. Although the aluminium processing works closed in the 1990s, the associated hydro-electric plant is still operating here. Water is channelled to the generating station in Kinlochleven from Blackwater Reservoir high in the mountains down six huge parallel pipes. Standing in the rain, overlooking the village and the loch and surrounded by woodland in autumn colours, we talked about the navvies who had built the dam and pipeline. If you follow the pipeline along its length of over four miles, you will find a graveyard to these workers, many of them in unnamed graves.
Back in the village, we dried off in the handsome former aluminium smelter building, which is now an ice climbing centre. It was buzzing and we sat with hot chocolate in the café watching lithe climbers on the routes. We left with a couple of bottles of the River Leven Ales that are brewed in another of the old industrial buildings here; another lucky find for those of us who love dark, malty beer.
It was beyond dusk as we pulled into our overnight stop in Glencoe and, in the morning, the rain had moved on, the sky was clear and the mountains were glowing in the dawn light. We drove back to Loch Leven to gaze at the views that had been hidden by cloud the day before. In the crystal-clear air every crease and bump of the Ardgour mountains across Loch Linnhe were highlighted, creating an otherworldly scene.
Reluctant to leave, we drove on to the picturesque Victoria Bridge along the single-track road from Bridge of Orchy to walk along our favourite section of the West Highland Way which follows part of Telford’s early nineteenth century Parliamentary Road. After taking in the views over Loch Tulla and Rannoch Moor, we followed the valley track towards Loch Dochard along the beautiful river. As we left the Highlands, I counted up the new treasures we had found in this beautiful area of Lorn and stashed the memories safely away.
This feature was originally published in the January 2018 issue of MMM magazine. This trip took place prior to the coronavirus pandemic. We are publishing it for your enjoyment and to help you plan your future trips. Read the latest camping travel advice here.
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